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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Shawn Vestal: Concerns over rejection of gay job candidate stirs World Relief

As scores of refugees from Afghanistan have begun arriving in Spokane, a controversy has roiled the local office of World Relief, the organization that resettles them here – causing some people to leave the organization and supporters to rethink financial contributions.

Last autumn, World Relief extended a job offer to an attorney, and the attorney accepted it – only to have the organization’s national office rescind the offer.

The reason? The attorney is a gay man in a same-sex marriage.

The national World Relief organization is part of the National Association of Evangelicals, which has a policy requiring that “the sexual activity of employees … be only within the biblical covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.”

For many in the Spokane office, the decision was dismaying and confusing, a blatantly discriminatory act at odds with the spirit and mission of the work they do. State and federal law prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, though there are exceptions for religious organizations; the full nature of those exceptions are part of evolving case law, and the way this particular instance fits into that legal landscape isn’t clear.

As word of the decision has leaked into the community, some individuals and organizations have decided to withhold donations, and two employees have resigned, with the possibility of others.

“I’m leaving World Relief as a result of all this,” said Sam Smith, the hiring manager who was directly involved with the offer. “It just didn’t feel like I could be true to myself. I have asylum clients for whom their basis of asylum is their sexual orientation.”

Mark Finney, executive director of World Relief in Spokane, declined to comment on the matter. Jenny Yang, the senior vice president for advocacy and policy for World Relief’s national office in Baltimore, would not agree to an interview, but provided a statement on behalf of the organization, saying it does not comment on individual hiring decisions.

“At World Relief, we love and serve all people, no matter what their sexual orientation or gender identity may be,” the statement read, in part. “Religious organizations – whether they are Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, or any other faith – are able to hire staff that share their beliefs and doctrine.”

The crisis in the local office comes at a bad time, because the office is in the midst of resettling some 300 refugees from Afghanistan.

At least one church community that has been a long-standing supporter of World Relief has suspended contributions from a fund-raising campaign over the matter.

A pastor at St. Mark’s Lutheran, Lori Cornell, sent a letter to the congregation on Nov. 29, telling them the church was suspending its campaign to raise money for World Relief as a result of the hiring decision. The congregation had raised $4,000 to help resettle Afghan refugees, but halted that campaign; the clergy there also said they would be writing a letter to the national World Relief office.

“We fear that not only will this affect World Relief’s effectiveness in resettling refugees, but that it stands in sharp contrast to St. Mark’s mission,” the letter said.

Clergy at St. Mark’s declined to comment further on the matter.

A local couple who have often supported World Relief, individually and through their church, St. Stephens Episcopal, have paused a donation to the organization and written to World Relief objecting to the policy.

Joanne and Dan Cenis said they want to balance support for the local office of World Relief and the important work it does with opposing discrimination against LGBT people.

“I have friends and family who are gay, so this national World Relief policy is ethically against my belief system, reflects discrimination and reflects a belief that laws to protect LGBT individuals are not important,” Joanne Cenis wrote in the letter.

“I am waiting on giving my donation to World Relief, waiting for a change in this policy before I give and before I encourage others to make financial contributions.”

World Relief is an international nonprofit whose mission is “to empower the local church to serve the most vulnerable.” It has 20 offices across the U.S. and more worldwide, working to help those suffering from violence and oppression, extreme poverty and natural disasters.

One of its key values is being “church-centered.”

“We believe that God gave us a plan to save our broken world, and it begins with his church, and his people, leading the way,” the organization’s web site says.

The question of the legality of the decision under anti-discrimination law is somewhat complicated. The Supreme Court in 2020 expanded federal anti-discrimination law to include prohibition against employment discrimination over sexual orientation and gender identity. However, protections for religious freedom remain an open question following this ruling, and more recent rulings from the newly conservative court have tended to favor religious freedom in cases where there is tension between those values – such as siding with the Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

Washington law has a similar tension, prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation but allowing exemptions for religious nonprofits. Court challenges have produced Washington case law that narrows that exemption to the employment of people in ministerial roles for the religious organizations – a line that is still being defined in case law, but which is not limited strictly to clergy.

“A key question is what is the limit of the ministerial exemption?” said Lisa Nowlin, a staff attorney for the ACLU based in Seattle. “Is a janitor employed by a religious hospital with 16,000 employees someone who is considered a minister? Is the attorney who is providing legal services considered ministerial?”

The World Relief policy seems crafted to avoid addressing the question directly. It does not explicitly prohibit hiring gays or lesbians, but simply hiring anyone who engages in sexual activity outside of a heterosexual marriage. But the intention of the policy is obvious.

Smith and others said the attorney candidate was “more than qualified” for the position, and they wondered how they would adhere the policy in the future. Other employees, past and present, have private lives that could well run afoul of that policy, they said.

“How (was) I supposed to police someone’s sexual activity?” Smith said.